I like using acronyms because it reminds me of texting (tbh). More than once, I’ve told professors that my essays would be more entertaining and persuasive if I was able to use emojis and the occasional “lol” in my academic writing. So when I was told we were hosting an API workshop, of course I had to come up with some alternate meanings for API:
- A Penguin Investigator
- All Pasta is Important
- Advanced Pigeon Intelligence
- Anchovy Pizza: Impure
- Awkward Panda Incident
At our Crash Course in APIs workshop, David and Steve from the Regional Data Center taught an enthralled crowd of 40 hobbyists, students, start-up wizards and public-sector workers about what the heck an API is and some cool things to do with them. The actual meaning of API is Application Programming Interface, and they are sets of rules and methods for communication between software components. They’re kind of like LEGO bricks because each step of using an API builds on the previous ones, but David and Steve think it’s because they both hurt when you step on them.
As a computer user, you utilize APIs more than you think. Any time you request information from a website, like searching for an open room in the hotel nearest you, you are asking that service to use the hotel’s API to deliver that information. Take a look at this example of an API “get” request from the workshop.
Does the top line look familiar? As a member of an internet-obsessed society, it sure should. If you ever thought that internet URLs just looked like a bunch of jibberish (like I did), then it can be a big revelation to learn that it all means something.
APIs use Hypertext Transport Protocol requests to transfer information back and forth between clients (like your cell phone and computer) and web servers. Think of it this way: The clients are restaurant customers, the server is the restaurant kitchen and the HTTP request (carried by the waiter) could be an order for food (carried from the client to the server) or the food itself (carried from the server back to the client).
Services like Spotify, Twitter and Reddit all have their own APIs in play that do things through the HTTP “get” and “post” methods. In Spotify’s, for example, you can “get” information about songs, playlists, artists, users, etc., and you can “post” songs to build and modify playlists.
WPRDC also uses APIs; our Property Dashboard and Burgh’s Eye View tools both use APIs to update the interactive maps with current information. We also use APIs extensively to push data to our open data portal. When we receive new data, it gets pushed to where it needs to go — under the correct publisher, dataset and topic — so that when you search for it, it’s already there.
Turns out, APIs can do a lot of fun things — like make a bus tracker or order a pizza right to your house, which is a good example of how while APIs can do virtual things, they can also effect change in the real world. You can see all that David and Steve taught about APIs (and get a good starting point to use them yourself) on our GitHub repository.